Responding to long-standing criticisms that theoretical readings of early modern literary texts are anachronistic, Melehy argues that past and present phenomena may be understood alongside one another, while still respecting both of them. He brings together Gilles Deleuze and Michel de Montaigne through their shared interest in Lucretius. Melehy demonstrates a Lucretian-inflected materialism in Montaigne's Essais that implicitly criticizes Platonic conceptions of the primacy of thought over matter, and concomitant human claims to dominate the physical and natural world. Melehy signals intersections between Montaigne's dissident philosophy and Deleuze's materialist re-conception of the history of philosophy in order to point out ways that the essayist's work speaks to questions that are also pertinent to present-day meditations on the environment.
Keywords: Michel de Montaigne, Gilles Deleuze, Lucretius, materialism, literary theory, ecocriticism
One of the challenging stances that this collection adopts—asking what early modern French literature might bring to theory and the present day rather than what theory may bring to early modern literature—implies a critical response to the common conception of theory as ‘used’ or ‘applied’. This has probably been the most widespread model since the early days of what is now called theory, which is to say the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US, where the notion of theory was mainly imported into literature programmes despite its origins in European philosophy. The import was often a vulgarized version that reduced vast sets of complicated concepts to methodologies that could be put to use for producing even more readings of literary texts. Whereas one of the reasons for the early interest in theory was that it complicated notions of text, writing, reading, and their institutionalization, the ‘application’ model has always aimed for re-simplification. In this essay, I will respond to the vulgar model by considering the relationship between, on the one hand, recent and contemporary theorization of the phenomenon of matter, and on the other, early modern literature that addresses the same subject.
Theorizing the French Renaissance
Despite its enduring popularity, the application model has long met with explicit contestation from theorists themselves.